Film Review: Ennio: The Maestro

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

That wonderfully atmospheric opening theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with its coyote calls, whistling and whip cracks; the evocative harmonica of Once Upon a Time in the West; the haunting oboe of The Mission: the film music of Ennio Morricone has a permanent place in our collective consciousness. Ennio: the Maestro, an absorbing film by director Giuseppe Tornatore, explores why.

It’s a fascinating story, beginning with Morricone’s struggles as a young musician. His father, scratching a living playing trumpet in local bands, insists the young Ennio learns trumpet too. So the boy joins him, playing in local cinemas and revue bars. But he wants more. He manages to secure a place at Rome’s Saint Cecilia Conservatory at the age of 12, but here feels painfully conscious of his humble origins. Unlike the other students from wealthy families, Ennio supports himself throughout, playing at dances. Tornatore’s film uses a wonderful range of archive footage, showing scenes from the popular dance club, the Sistina, and dancing girls in a cabaret, together with the shining-eyed young Morricone.

But despite a constant feeling of inferiority, Morricone has the confidence to insist on learning from the celebrated composition teacher, Goffredo Petrassi. Petrassi takes little interest in him at first. But when, after much apprentice work, Morricone produces an extraordinarily inventive piece, Petrassi becomes his champion, determined to get Morricone a post at the Conservatory. But it never comes to pass, and Morricone goes off to do military service, plays in the band and marries his beloved Maria. It is evidently a great sadness to Morricone, however, that to the end, Petrassi considered film music an inferior genre.

By the early 1960s a new direction opens up for him – first arranging and then composing musical scores for films. But at this point Tornatore brings in another fascinating strand: an exploration of Morricone as a highly experimental composer. It is this life-long passion for exploring new ways of making music that will inform all his composition for film. Morricone is inspired by hearing John Cage giving a bizarrely funny performance at a music festival, and joins Franco Evangelisti’s Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, an avant-garde group dedicated to improvision and the creation of new ‘brutto’ (ugly) sounds: ‘traumatic sounds’. Il Gruppo more or less ban melody. But this is the grit in the oyster for Morricone. Although throughout his life he continues to compose serious experimental music, and avoid melody, in fact, as Tornatore says, he ‘worked with melody every day’.

The turning point for Morricone comes when Sergio Leone invites him to compose a score for a new Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The startling originality of the music Morricone composes comes from his use of real sounds – the lashing of a whip, a whistle, bells and gunshot – creating what one critic describes as ‘a new language’. There follows in 1966 Morricone’s incomparable score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Much of the delight of Ennio: the Maestro comes from extracts from interviews with an astonishing range of world-famous film directors, fellow composers, musicians and performers. Over a long life of film music composition in which he scored some 400 films, Morricone worked with, amongst others, Tarantino, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Terrence Malick, Roland Joffé and of course Tornatore himself, who remembers the thrill when Morricone rang him and suggested composing the score of Cinema Paradiso. Reminded of this, Morricone’s calm face bursts into a radiant smile. His only regret was not having worked with Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange.

There were disappointments along the way. Despite having a world-wide reputation, Morricone never won an Oscar despite many nominations. He was finally awarded one in 2015 for his score for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

At the heart of the film is Ennio Morricone himself, calm, contained, passionately devoted to music. We see him in archive footage conducting his scores, or, for Tornatore’s unobtrusive camera, alone in his cluttered study, conducting an imaginary orchestra, or quietly talking to camera, still shining-eyed in his 80s. The final minutes of the film are accompanied by the soaring glories of his score for The Mission. Morricone died in 2020 aged 91. As Ennio: the Maestro makes abundantly clear, without him film music as we know it today could not have happened.

Dogwoof present Ennio: The Maestro in cinemas from 22 April 2022.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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